Thursday, June 10, 2010

On Practicality

David Brooks had a pretty nice column a couple of days ago on the state of the humanities in these tough times:
When the going gets tough, the tough take accounting. When the job market worsens, many students figure they can’t indulge in an English or a history major. They have to study something that will lead directly to a job.
And Brooks goes on to very ably defend the humanities and to situate it in our modern life.

You never see science types defending their discipline; nor are there a particularly large number of business professors attacking the very idea of teaching business in an academic environment (though there are some notable dissenters). There’s obviously something very practical and sure in studying these subjects that doesn’t seem to hold for the humanities, as Brooks writes.

The problem can be roughly summed up thusly: numbers. Numbers are the humanities’ enemies. This is a different point than the “Physics for Poets” gut classes of humanities students dodging the tough classes, those wimps. But it’s related: science and business have all the numbers. In a math test, you are demonstrably right or demonstrably wrong; there’s very little scope for opinions at the undergraduate level. Whereas every humanities student can and has complained about the arbitrary whims of the professor or T.A. And more than that: the achievements of the math/science/business crowd seem incontestable for the sheer bulk and heft provided by numbers. That’s something you can be comforted by. By contrast, words—essentially the focus of the humanities—oftentimes seem as substantial as the passing wind: prone to shift at any time; people experience the same words differently. They’re messy.

What looks more like real life? Is it the possibly-arbitrary opinions of a professor? Is it disagreeing over an honestly-held opinion? Or is it the ease of integrating and conic sections?

The world is bound to be ambiguous, naturally. And introspection and analysis is necessary to navigate it. To wit: the imperious, arbitrary demands of your professor or T.A. might be just that. Or perhaps the imperious, arbitrary demands are actually justified, well-reasoned critiques. Or perhaps there are elements of both. You have to decide, and decide after reflection and honest self-assessment. I submit that while this experience might be available in the sciences and business curricula, you must have it in the humanities—there’s no avoiding it. Moreover, the material itself facilitates that realization: any honest engagement with history or literature or politics means that you must admit that there are other perspectives; that often these perspectives rest on different values as well as different interpretations of the same facts; and that therefore someone who holds differing opinions is worth understanding and not merely dismissing as an idiot (though you are allowed to do this after understanding comes.)

By contrast, the cold, metallic certainty of the practical majors is there only at the basics; indeed, assuming that this certainty is forever present or forever a part of the world from this education is a mistake. Probably the most revealing intellectual embarrassment recently is the disarray of economics, possibly the most practical of the practical majors (in terms of career remuneration, natch.) Economists cannot agree (or have figured out) about such subjects as: stimulus, the Great Depression, rationality, the minimum wage, zoning, monetary policy, third-world development, the stock market, financial markets in general, etc. etc. The field is, for that reason, tremendously interesting to read and to think about; what it isn’t, as Wall Street has abundantly revealed, is a particularly reliable guide to navigating the world on a consistent basis. It isn’t practical to rely on economics. That it has built up this image of practicality and assured expertise is more than an oddity: it’s a danger—economics majors and Ph.D.s fed Wall Street, and helped create a conventional wisdom that coddled Wall Street and abandoned middle- and lower-class Americans. Indeed, the assumptions about which things are practical and which things aren’t practical are mostly social ways of steering people into certain professions and lines of thinking (think about how practical Gates, Jobs, et. al. were). And yet practicality isn’t what it should be which is: a relatively certain sustainable guide to the world. It’s practical to work hard; it isn’t practical to party every night. The practical majors aren’t practical in that way.

Nor do the other practical majors have that same certainty when examining them with any amount of scrutiny. We don’t know a lot of very interesting and potentially useful things.

The problem here comes back to numbers. Or, rather, the misuse of numbers. We have a strange relationship to statistics. We pretend to be skeptical of them—“Lies, damned lies and statistics” is the hoary repeated phrase—but in truth we readily accept them. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had an argument that revolved around a variation of a sentence “They did a study about ______.” The presumption given to these numbers is that they are reliable and solid in a way that words aren’t, and the practical majors have numbers and the humanities don’t.

There’s a very powerful phrase in Michael Lewis’s Moneyball about Bill James (paraphrase): “He wanted to make statistics have the power of language.” Think about the relationship there. Everyone is ready and guarded against the ability of language to deceive and illuminate in turn, but about numbers we are unwilling to think about so critically. We don’t think about them as what they are: a kind of language. And any language is only as good as the signifiers relate to the signified. You see this debate all the time: is GDP really a good measure of the wealth and health of a nation? And yet we go about our lives ruled indirectly by whether the GDP has gone up or down in the most recent quarter. There’s no attempt to contextualize. For my money, the best work with statistics: by which I mean not the most comprehensive or the most certain, but the most innovative, exploratory and interesting has been in basketball.

In baseball, the statistics rarely lie: if you’re a .900+ OPS player, you are very good, no question about it. If you are a 20+ ppg player, or even an 18+ PER player (to take one of the advanced statistics out there—for context, 15 PER is league average), you might not be very good at all. Because basketball is a team game, and every statistic denoting individual achievement can be won at the expense of the team. Which means, therefore, that you have to think hard about every statistic and think about whether it was earned in a manner that helps the team win or not. And, moreover, most of the good work in basketball statistics is focused on how to relate individual achievement to team achievement. There’s a critical skepticism, community and intellectual diversity that distinguishes basketball statistics from the other sports statistics, and I think it should be an intellectual example to….just about everyone, really. Practicality is a manner of thinking.


  1. Statistics are like bikinis. What they reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital. ~Aaron Levenstein